Posts Tagged ‘anti-consumerism’

5 Ways to Fight a Shopping Addiction

This month, perhaps after watching the video above, I’ve gone and done something essentially un-American: I’ve declared March to be a no shopping, no buying month for me. Food and other essentials like toothpaste that allow me to function as a normal member of society are excepted. I’m not a shopaholic to begin with, and my primary vice is cruising a thrift store or two once a month, but I know I still shop for bad reasons. (Most reasons are bad reasons when I already have everything I need.)

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with shopping every now and then, but as a national pastime that is wreaking havoc on the environment, it deserves some increased attention. How much of our happiness do we bank in shopping? How do we get off this track of ever increasing consumerism?

As a solution-oriented INTJ, I carefully catalogued all the bad reasons why I shop — and what to do about them. Which of these reasons do you identify with?

Bad reason #1:  Boredom with what I currently have. A quintessentially first world confession: I get bored with my wardrobe. No doubt this has something to do with the fact that I wear solid color 3/4 sleeve tees and jeans almost every day. If I go shopping, I am likely to find a solid color 3/4 sleeve tee in a shade of green I don’t have, or with a slightly interesting neckline. If I am sufficiently bored, and it is $5 at the thrift store, I am likely to buy it.

Solutions: Swap clothes with friends or attend (or organize) a local swap meet. If I’m not up for the sociability of a swap meet, I can always dig through the back of my closet to try on what I rarely wear.

Bad reason #2: A desire to get out of the house. I’m a homebody, but every now and then, the urge to get out overcomes my essential inertia. The thrift stores are the nearest and cheapest activities, so they’re a clear temptation.

Solutions: Make a mental list of activities I enjoy more than shopping (including walking in the woods, seeing a friend, socializing shy kitties, and going to pottery) and do one of them whenever I feel tempted to go shopping. Even if they’re a little further or cost a little more, they definitely bring me more satisfaction. I need to make more conscious decisions about how to spend my time. Shopping should not be a hobby.

Bad reason #3: Dissatisfaction with some aspect of my life. Frustrating day at work? Argument with the spouse? Cat being mean to me? We’re trained to believe in consumer therapy, even though I know from real experience that shopping tends to leave me in an exhausted, indecisive, zombie-like state.

Solutions: Address the core issues instead of seeking temporary distraction. Hah! Easier said than done, of course. Back when I was living at home after college, my dad would say or do something that would make steam come out of my ears — just about every week. Instead of confronting him, I went out and bought lip balm. One tube every time he pissed me off. I’m still working through my stash, and I moved out years ago. My current dissatisfaction is mostly with my job. Instead of going shopping, I should put the time into looking for a different job.

Bad reason #4: Keeping up with the Joneses. I hate to say it, but I am ever so slightly susceptible. I have one particular friend that this happens with (it’s a two way process). We’re often interested in the same things, but once she’s gotten one (or I have), the other is much more likely to want it. This year it was sweater dresses. A couple years before that it was the Celtic Woman CDs. Before that it may have been slightly broken and ‘unadoptable’ cats. (Hello, Brie!)

Solutions: Be more conscious about how buying decisions fit in with existing needs and interests.  I ended up getting rid of the Celtic Woman CDs. They never aligned perfectly with my interests (acoustic folk music), and I realized pretty quickly that I didn’t actually like them very much. The sweater dress, on the other hand, is so comfortable and warm that I’ve been tempted to go to bed in it. It’s become one of my favorite winter wardrobe pieces.

Bad reason #5: Aspirational buying. I’m slightly ashamed to tell you how many pottery tools I have. In fact, I don’t even know the exact number. It’s a lot. I only use about five of them regularly. The others I bought for special projects, or because I thought they would do something they didn’t. For each of my hobbies, I’ve bought things based on aspirations I never actually carry out.

Solutions: Avoid ‘problem’ stores.  (Clay Planet for me, Michael’s for you?) Borrow tools from friends to test out before buying, buy only what I need for projects I have already started.

(?) Bad reason #6: Gift giving. This one, I think, I am least willing to fix. I enjoy giving presents, and I also enjoy looking for them. My gift list is short because I’m not close to many people, but I put a lot of effort into finding just the right things, and they’re usually well received.

Solutions: Switch to non-material presents like concert tickets, classes, meals out, and time spent together. Make more presents. Come to non-gift agreements with friends and family who are open to it.  When a material present is just right, compromise.

I believe shifting our time and energy away from consumerism can do a lot to make us happier and more fulfilled, and I’m putting my money where my mouth is. What are the bad reasons you shop? How do you deal with them?

The 8 Reasons We Don’t Go Green

Being in Target sucks up all of my optimism about our species’ environmental progress. Kevin and I needed Seventh Generation washing up liquid, so we ducked in and promptly found ourselves amidst endless rows of shiny plastic things, clothing probably made in sweatshops, processed foods, and conspicuous overconsumption. And we realized: this is how mainstream America still lives and shops. My life may revolve around very different ideas of consumption, but I am a minority.

It was massively depressing.

We’re up against so much in trying to shift towards a less consumerist, more sustainable lifestyle. It’s not about a few small, easy changes; it’s about embracing a whole different perspective. I’ve been thinking about my own green evolution and that of the people around me, and several clear reasons emerge why we don’t do more, lose bad habits, and otherwise get around to saving the planet already. Which of these do you identify with?

  1. We’re overwhelmed. The problems we face are so huge — ocean acidification, massive extinctions, climate change, fresh water shortages — that it already seems too little, too late for a lot of these things. We don’t know where to begin, so we don’t. And going green sometimes also feels overwhelming. There are too many new actions to consider, too many things to avoid, and too much guilt to deal with. The result: stagnation.
  2. We’re brainwashed. Most of us were brought up as consumers who spent a lot of time and energy thinking about buying things, even as kids. Opting out means leaving behind a lifetime’s worth of thinking patterns, learning new ones, and essentially breaking up with the dominant culture.
  3. We don’t think our actions will make any difference. This is one of my biggest stumbling blocks. Changing a lightbulb will not save the planet. Using a cloth bag will not save the planet. Even haranguing your congressman and starting a green movement will not save the planet. It helps, a little. Our individual ability to improve a huge, widespread, complex problem is limited.  That’s just the way it is.
  4. We can’t see the impact of our choices.  The shoppers at Target were probably mostly unaware of the environmental impact of the things they were buying. They didn’t know that their cookies contained palm oil that was grown at the cost of Indonesian deforestation. They didn’t know that the cotton shirts they were buying introduced a lot of pesticides into the environment and polluted waterways in third world countries. The links between environmental degradation and human rights abuses and shiny new things in a California store are far from transparent. And…
  5. We don’t want to know. I’ve offered to lend my copy of Food, Inc. to my parents and friends. They’ve refused. They’re not ready to know what really goes into their food, and I can’t really blame them. Our food industry is a strange and scary thing. It’s not just our food, but also just about every other major industry, from cosmetics to clothing. The truth is available, but we don’t go seeking it out.
  6. We’re too busy. It takes a certain amount of emotional space and head space to care about something as abstract as the environment. If your everyday life is busy, hectic, and full of other concerns, there’s no room left to care about something that seems far away and only tangentially connected to daily life. We’re also easily distracted. See celebrity gossip, sports, and shopping.
  7. We’re afraid. I often wonder how much of the climate change denial is simply rooted in the fear that we’ve deeply, truly messed things up this time. It’s interesting how we’re grasping at straws to disprove climate change, looking for any evidence that a) it’s not happening, or at least b) it’s not our fault. Instead of dealing with the situation, we’re looking for new ways to bury our heads in the sand.
  8. Change is hard. It is. And although I’d like to be encouraging and positive, making my life more sustainable has involved significant expenditures in time and energy. Greener choices aren’t always more convenient. They don’t always work as well as conventional options. They sometimes cost more.  And many of them involve significant changes to daily routines. Truth.
Of course, individuals are only part of the equation. At least as much of the problem are governments that either can’t or won’t act decisively to mitigate the impact of climate change, and corporations that prioritize immediate profit over longterm planetary health. It’s a bit of a chicken-or-egg kind of argument — do consumers control corporations and government, or is it the other way around?
I’m sure it’s both. In order to get to the point of influencing governments and corporations, we need to care about the problem as individuals. And for all its apparent ineffectiveness in the face of such a large problem, I think that’s why individual actions and attitudes still matter.

 If you think about areas of your life you haven’t tried to make more sustainable, what are the reasons behind your inaction? Have I missed any major ones?

On Getting Rid of Books

There is a deep restlessness gnawing at my bones. I want a change — to learn something new, dive into something that I feel truly passionate about, grow a garden, be crazy and impetuous for once in my life. Most of all, I want to move. Away from my neighbors who fry fish at 7am. Away from smog, highways, concrete, light pollution, and strip malls.

I want a small — or perhaps even a very small — house.  Kevin and I can’t afford one (plus things like, you know, land) just now, but it’s not entirely out of the question within the next few years. We’ve started talking about downsizing from our current 1100 sf condo, looking at Tumbleweed cottage floor plans (the lofted Whidbey at 557 sf is our favorite), thinking about what spaces we use and how often, and what things we use and how often.

Even librarian kitty thinks we have too many books

Kevin and I have reached an unavoidable conclusion: we currently have too many books to live in a very small house.

This is not surprising. We are both ex-English majors. We have both worked at bookstores. I review for Amazon Vine. We are shameless zealots of the written word, the smell of good quality ink, the warm heft of cotton-rich paper. Kevin’s collections include Japanese poetry, modern photography, modern literature, and surrealism. My collections include fairy tales and mythology, natural science, art reference, and British literature. Despite knowing that books = dead trees, we refuse to worship at the altar of the Kindle.

However. We want this small house to happen enough that we’re finally willing to part with some of our books. The first handfuls were a wrench. I felt terrible putting books I’d had for years on the cull pile, as if I were consigning old friends to the guillotine. But then I found a kind of momentum and realized that I was making better, more conscious decisions about my books for the first time.  The books I keep have to meet two basic criteria: 1) I anticipate wanting to reread and/or reference it in the relatively near future; and 2) I actually like the book. It’s astonishing how I don’t actually like maybe 25% of my books but have kept them anyway. Finally, I’m getting rid of books I’ve kept for bad reasons, including:

  • Books that belong within a certain collection, even if I didn’t especially care for them (e.g. fairy tale picture books illustrated by Michael Hague, whose people look like trolls)
  • Mediocre books by authors  whose other books I enjoy
  • Books that I acquired for a former interest that I am now unlikely to return to (e.g. costume history books)
  • Books that make me feel smarter when they’re on the shelf (see the Machiavelli? the Plato?)
  • Books that I paid full price for (regardless of whether they were enjoyable or not)
  • Books that people I love have given me
  • Books that just look pretty (I am a sucker for 19th and early 20th century gilt and leather bindings)
  • Books that I have been meaning to read for years and never got around to
Do any of these sound familiar to you? I’ve never been this ruthless about books — they were always exempt from any new shopping or spending limits I set for myself. For the past few years, I’ve been at net zero, with as many going out as coming in. That’s all beginning to change.

I’ve said before that I’m no minimalist, and it’s still true. I don’t feel the need to strip my belongings to just the bare essentials, or to part with books I truly enjoyed and will want to read again. At the same time, there is something exciting, even liberating, about not having more stuff than what I consider beautiful or useful.

What do you think about living in small spaces? How would you feel about getting rid of books?

How much is enough?

Having enough — not too much, not too little — is kind of a foreign concept in this country. In the three hundred odd years that we’ve been around, we seem to swing between the extremes of not having enough (as colonists, pioneers, Depression survivors) and having far too much (roaring twenties, materialistic 50s, and everything that followed). It’s like we’re cultural bulimics with a consumption disorder on a national scale.

Somewhere in this mess, the idea of having enough seems to have gotten a little lost. It’s not just about having enough money to cover your basic needs and some of your wants; it’s also about having the time and energy and space to enjoy being alive. The equation is simple enough: the more things we want, the more money we have to make, the more hours we have to work, and the less energy and time we have for relationships, hobbies, experiences, and perhaps even our own health and sanity.

This is not my idea, by the way. It’s one of the founding principles behind one of EcoCatLady’s book recommendations, Your Money or Your Life, and it’s such a nice, intuitive idea that I’m amazed we have to read a book to wrap our heads around it. Buying too much stuff is expensive not only to the planet, but also to our own very finite resources of time and energy and money.

I heard the other day that the average wedding dress now costs $8,000. My first reaction was to wonder how many feral cats I could save with that much money. My second was to retort that I got married in a pretty shirt I picked up at the thrift store and a skirt that I had bought over five years ago. Neither Kevin nor I cared. Our marriage isn’t doomed because we didn’t spend thousands on a wedding. Our lives are not poorer because we don’t have smart phones, new cars, designer sunglasses, or granite counters. Quite the opposite, actually. Those things come at a price we’re not willing to pay.

Surprisingly enough, when I think about my life in terms of enough, I’m almost there already. I’m not wealthy, but I have more than I use. I have a thoughtful spouse who puts up with incredible amounts of eccentricity (trust me, I’m worse in real life) and a companion kitty who reminds me every day of the rewards of a little patience and kindness. A quiet home in which I feel comfortable and safe. A hobby that leaves me feeling centered and fulfilled. A job that I don’t love but leaves enough space and money for the things I do.

Maybe it sounds naive, but I like my life. I find the world endlessly interesting. I enjoy being alive. And it has absolutely nothing to do with how many pairs of shoes I have. It’s true that I would eventually like a small country house with a garden and a potter’s wheel. And I know I can’t count on enjoying good health for the rest of my life, so it makes sense to have savings and safety nets for the future. But they don’t seriously challenge my gut-level conviction that I have enough. 

I imagine that everyone’s version of enough will look a little different, since happiness is so subjective and individual. Mine is especially low budget because I am unsociable (no keeping up with the Joneses), don’t have kids (no college funds to save up for), don’t have a television (less advertising), and hate the piped music and fluorescent lighting common to most malls (shopping limit: roughly 30 minutes each month).

I don’t blame you if my choices don’t sound appealing, but I do invite you to spend some time thinking about what you have, what you need, and how much is actually enough. Isn’t it time we started shopping less and living more?

Lessons from the cat about being green

Amazing green kitty

Lynn from Upcycled Love recently posted an entry on what her cat Smokey has taught her about personal connections, and it  made me think: non-human animals teach us a lot we’ve forgotten on the long road to opposable thumbs and so-called higher intelligence. And when it comes to low impact living, even your average spoiled housecat is a model of greenness.  If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you might remember an earlier, maybe slightly snarky post on why my cat is greener than your baby.  

I’m ready to turn that into something a little calmer now.  In no particular order, here are five lessons that my small blind rescue kitty has taught — is teaching — me about being green.

Lesson #1: Simplicity is sustainable. Cats will not put up with accessorizing. Nor are they acquisitive animals. I have never met a cat that liked to shop. Although Brie likes her fuzzy blue blanket and her scratching post, her quality of life would not be seriously affected by their loss. (The carpet, however, would suffer.) With the exception of her food bags and plastic litter box and scoop, just about everything Brie consumes or produces is either biodegradable or recyclable. Now there’s a good example for us humans.

Lesson #2: The best toys in life are improvised, upcycled, and free. When I first got the cat, I bought her a stream of crinkly, crawly, bouncy, and jingly toys. Her enthusiasm for each had the longevity of your average toddler’s attention span. However, her fascination with biodegradable packing peanuts, fallen leaves or branches from my houseplants, and random things we drop on the floor seems to be endless. I will probably never need to buy her another toy. Do kids really need plastic play kitchens? Do I need electronic gadgets? Probably not. After all, I prefer playing around in the mud. (Clay, that is.)

Lesson #3: Being a biological dead end is OK. Like most rescued cats, Brie is spayed. She will never have a litter of baby Bries running around her. But honestly? Brie seems content to miss out on motherhood. Judging by the way she reacted to the last foster kitten, she has zero maternal instinct. Her life is calm, quiet, and slow to change, and she seems thoroughly happy. It’s well-established that sterilized animals are healthier, less aggressive and longer-lived. If we could get this message that it’s OK not to reproduce out to humans, maybe we could make some progress in stabilizing our growing population.

Lesson #4: It’s necessary to adapt to changes and challenges. Brie has been blind for several years due to toxoplasmosis. I don’t know whether she remembers being able to see or if she misses it, but I do know that she gets around handily, catches her toys by sound and smell, and has all the sunny spots in the house memorized. (Cats remember that sunlight is always better than electricity.) Regardless of what we humans do about the environment at this point, we’re not going to be able to prevent climate change. We might be able to mitigate some of the worst effects, but mostly we’re going to need to adapt to new, perhaps less pleasant, circumstances and try to make smarter choices in the future. No whining allowed.

Lesson #5: Happiness is 90% being loved and being content with what you have. This isn’t directly about environmentalism, but I think it addresses an underlying issue of our rabid overconsumption of resources. Maybe we’ve forgotten that stuff doesn’t really matter, doesn’t really make us happy. I think our pets remind us every day that quality of life has little to do with the acquisition of stuff. Certainly, watching Brie loll around on her back in a big puddle of sunshine, I think she’s on to something.

What have your companion animals taught you?

Ending my romance with dollar stores

I have a confession to make: I used to like dollar stores. For this, as for many other things, I blame my parents. They immigrated to the US with virtually nothing and climbed their way into solid middle class respectability — without ever losing their immigrant mentality regarding money. This meant a number of things: never saying no to free stuff (did my dad ever love those big computer conventions ), never buying ice cream from the ice cream truck (because it cost four times as much as getting it at the supermarket), and bargain hunting as if it were a world class sport.

Friday nights were spent at Big Lots, followed by a massive Dollar Tree (both helpfully located within a two block radius). Saturday mornings were spent at garage sales and flea markets. We never bought a lot of stuff — more often than not, we came out empty-handed — but it was our form of entertainment and, er, quality family time. Dollar stores, redolent with the smells of cheap new plastic, carpet square adhesive, and off-label cleaning goods, are as much a component of my childhood memories as homemade birthday cakes and half-melted crayons.

Over the years, I’ve found a number of goodies at dollar stores. Organic cotton and bamboo socks, stone coasters, pillowcases with cool tree patterns on them, fairy wrapping paper, and even surprisingly decent books. But I now also realize how emblematic dollar stores are of our national love affair with cheap, imported crap whose dollar price tag doesn’t even begin to cover its environmental and social costs. Dollar stores perpetuate just about every social and environmental crime you can think of. And lest you think they only discriminate against developing nations, they rip off US employees, too.

Sigh.

I’ve all but stopped going, because when I do, there’s nothing I can buy responsibly.  Anything I buy would be an exception to my own ethical convictions, which I hope are worth more than $1. What I’ve learned about mindful consumption has cost me that part of my childhood. I feel sad about its loss, even though there is no rational reason to hang on to it. (No one ever claimed that putting rationality and environmental responsibility in front of family tradition, cultural acceptance, and instant gratification was, well, fun.) But I also see my own reluctance to give dollar stores up entirely and wonder how rationality on its own could ever be strong or compelling enough to change culture, tradition, or emotional perception in mass.

Being cheap and going green can be fully compatible, but only if you take the DIY/reduction routes. Dollar stores? Not so much. What do you think think? Do you have a history with dollar stores, too?

13 Reasons You Can’t Afford to Shop

Shopping is an expenditure of time, energy, and money. It’s easy to forget that all of these are limited resources, and choosing to shop is choosing not to do something else, often something more enjoyable and fulfilling.  Although shopping may not be the worst thing we can do to the planet, it’s probably the eco-sin we commit most often, with the least amount of consciousness. (Greenwashers, you’re not helping here.) 

For your benefit — and mine — I’ve compiled a list of reasons why shopping isn’t a good use of your finite time and energy. (Kevin asks me to offer the caveat that not all of these will apply to you. But I’m pretty sure at least some of them will.) Bookmark it for the next time the urge to shop strikes!

  1. Shopping actually makes you pretty tired, cranky, and/or indecisive. (You tend to forget this inconvenient truth until you’re already in the middle of it.)
  2. You have too much stuff already.
  3. You can’t remember the last time you watched clouds move across the sky, sat by the ocean and listened to the rhythm of the tides, or went for a walk in the woods.
  4. You keep meaning to call your friend/sister/brother/mother but haven’t been able to find the time.
  5. You have books full of recipes, crafts, or music you want to try and have never gotten around to.
  6. Last year’s garden never got planted.
  7. You passed on the last interesting-sounding workshop, class, or community group because you didn’t think you had the time. You probably do, if you cut out all unnecessary shopping (and the internet addiction.)
  8. It’s been months since you read a book.
  9. Your novel/screenplay/painting has been ‘in progress’ for the last ten years. You’re starting to get embarrassed whenever anyone asks how it’s going.
  10. You’ve been slacking on volunteering at your favorite non-profit, even though you love doing it.
  11. Your pet is starting to prefer your spouse because you’re so rarely at home.
  12. You’re starting to realize that you’d prefer a massage to new crap to clutter up your closets.
  13. You haven’t sat down and really spent time with your spouse/best friend in months.

In fact, there might just be two reasons to shop:

  1. None of the above applies to you.
  2. You genuinely need something.
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